It's a funny thing, the feelings you get after witnessing various victories. Some barely register as joy, some bring a little sense of accomplishment and others actually call for a mini celebration. Sometimes you yell, sometimes you just sit back and let the win play out. Other times you're just excited the entire game. Yet there remains a classification of victory that I hadn't yet felt until December 31st. Sure, there have been last-second heaves to win in the Big Ten tournament, upsets on the road at Indiana and blowout victories at home against Iowa. I've certainly been utterly jubilant after many Minnesota wins. But as the buzzer sounded and signaled the end of victory over the Michigan State Spartans I realized that I was experiencing a whole new level of victory - a program changing victory. After the game I didn't yell in celebration. I didn't high five anyone. I just sat there with a weird buzz and semi-permanent goosebumps. It was unreal. It was different.
In explaining the importance of the win to my friends and relatives in the faint glow of New Year's Eve I cautioned that I didn't want to be too hyperbolic. "Greatest win ever" or "most amazing display of awesomeness I've ever seen" isn't accurate or even a relevant descriptor of Minnesota's accomplishment on Monday. In fact, as the numbers go the win wasn't even really an upset. "But," I said. "What we just saw today was the turning of a new page for this team."
Still seem a bit hyperbolic? Maybe it's that drizzle of cabin fever that fanbases get if they've been cooped up too long without ever seeing their team meet expectations. And if you haven't followed Minnesota very closely over the last few years, that's exactly what they've been guilty of. I'm offering up strange hyperbole because it's been a long, long time since the fanbase has experienced something like this. It feels weird. And at the risk of sounding disgustingly poetic, it feels right.
Up here in the Twin Cities we've heard it all season from different angles: "This is a different team" and "This is the year they're going to put it all together." Yeah, we'd heard that before. We had bought into the hype on more than one occasion and left feeling like fools; trudging home in the March rain carrying a backpack full of double digit conference losses. This year we were told this was probably going to be different. But it was still hard to totally buy in. "Wait until conference season starts" I kept telling myself.
But why wouldn't we feel that way? A game like the one we just witnessed against the Spartans is the EXACT type of game the Gophers have dropped time and again in the past under Tubby Smith. Playing a difficult (but beatable) team at home with a raucous crowd and plenty of talent on the court but dropping it in head-scratching fashion. That's what a 6-12 team looks like in the Big Ten. Beat the cupcakes and lose to the top half.
This year, though, with most of the same players as last year, the Gophers stood up to a tough, veteran and overall great Michigan State team at home and solidly beat them. They did what they haven't been able to do in past years and completely flipped the script. They won a difficult game they were expected to win at home convincingly. That's not the team we've come to know, but it's the team we have now. These guys finally get it. They aren't scared, they aren't taking any crap. They're the ones pushing people around.
But why is this "program changing"? This isn't the first time the Gophers have had the talent to do a lot of damage in the Big Ten. In fact, you could argue that in each of the past four years they've had the capacity to really make a lot of things happen. But, for one reason or another, they didn't. By beating Michigan State they proved that they are up to the challenge of facing the conference's top teams on their own court and will not fold against comparable competition. That's a huge deviation from where they were even last year and a proof point that they are indeed a changed program.
Now, "program changing" doesn't mean they are all of a sudden the best team in the conference -- I don't want to sit here on a soapbox and sing the praises of a team that's going to win any sort of championship. I instead want to illustrate that they've shown tremendous growth in a short period of time to take on the characteristics of a different team and it's worth taking note. I wouldn't put them ahead of Indiana or Michigan or Ohio State, for instance - though they really don't look to be that far off - and I won't pretend to believe that they'll be cutting down the net in Chicago in March. But the win on Monday over MSU was certainly validation for where a lot of people had the Gophers pegged, which is as a team in the top half of the league capable of knocking off some really good teams.
If Minnesota wasn't on the radar of the casual B1G fan before, they certainly should be now.